Exercise #32: Four Scenes About Power
Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Eugene Marten, Arkady Martine, Chris Gonzalez, Bojan Louis, Daniel José Older.
My novel Appleseed is out in paperback today! An epic speculative environmental novel about the climate crisis, spanning three storylines and a thousand years, it was a New York Times Notable Book of 2021 and an Amazon Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of the Year, among other honors. Esquire called it a “breathtaking novel of ideas unlike anything you’ve ever read,” and NPR named it to their 2021 Books We Love list. The paperback also includes a bonus P.S. section with a standalone short story titled “The Monstrous Birth,” detailing the origins of the half-man, half-animal faun Chapman, one of the novel’s three protagonists. If you haven’t read the novel yet, I hope you’ll check it out!
I have two virtual events this month, if you’d like to join me: On July 20, I’ll be talking with Pitchaya Sudbanthad about my Appleseed, his novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain, and climate fiction at To The Lighthouse. Then, on July 28, I’ll be giving another lecture drawn from Refuse to Be Done at the Lafayette Writers’ Studio.
During the past month, I also had the pleasure of interviewing Eugene Marten at Hazlitt, about his excellent new novel Pure Life. Here’s part of one of Marten’s answers, about his approach to writing prose:
For me, the great joy of writing is working with sentences, finding the voice of the book, its sound. The way to the mind’s eye is through the mind’s ear. So never describe anything, render it. Don’t describe a ship, build a ship out of words. Then go sailing… Each book I’ve attempted has always been a bit more difficult than the one preceding it, so the language will take me somewhere I haven’t been. But I think, over time, I’m more and more disposed toward subtlety, refinement, sentences that are objects of integrity themselves without calling attention to it, that don’t distract from what they refer to. The sublime can be very quiet.
I love that: “The sublime can be very quiet.” Indeed.
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
A Desperation Called Peace by Arkady Martine. Last month, I said that Martine’s A Memory Called Empire was one of my favorite new science fiction novels. This month, I read the sequel, and it’s possible I liked it even better. If you haven’t read these two books, don’t miss them.
I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat by Chris Gonzalez. I’ve been enjoying Gonzalez’s fiction for the past few years in literary magazines, and I was so glad when his debut collection came out. I finally got the chance to read it this week, switching between paperback and audio, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a smart, funny, tender book of stories, one I know I’ll be returning to again.
Sinking Bell by Bojan Louis. Louis’s collection is due out from Graywolf Press in late September, but put it on your radar now. It’s one of the best collections of realist short fiction I’ve read lately, with most (maybe all) of the stories take place in or around Flagstaff in Northern Arizona. For a preview, check out “Volcano,” one of my favorites among the collection’s stories.
Exercise #32: Four Scenes About Power
For perhaps obvious reasons, I’ve been obsessing about power this week: about who holds it, about who doesn’t (or feels like they don’t), and about how those who do find themselves in power choose to act or not act. Sometimes we are well aware of the power we wield and what we’re choosing to do or not do with it; other times we feel powerless, or we underestimate our own strength, or we find ourselves without a way to escape the power of others.
If conflict is what drives most fiction—and often more of our lives than we would like—then it’s often power that determines the outcomes of the conflicts our characters enter into during the course of a plot: the power to persuade, the power to compel, the power to meaningfully choose for oneself, among other possibilities. One of the most useful ideas I’ve found for thinking about how these power dynamics unfold is Daniel José Older’s statement that“every character has a relationship to power,” from his essay “12 Fundamentals of Writing ‘The Other’ (and the Self)”, where he writes:
They say conflict is the true backbone of story, and power is what makes conflict matter. But fiction classes rarely offer up a real discussion of power and its discontents. As fiction writers, we're not expected to be well versed in writing about power, the minutia, subtlety, complexity of it, the heartache. Usually, factual research replaces the in-depth conversations about oppression and resistance. There is only so much time.
Understanding power matters more than the factual details.
Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma. Power affects a character's relationship to self and others, and their emotional and physical journey through the story. If you ignore this, you get cutout dolls or white faces painted black.
There are many different kinds of power a fictional character might wield, some consciously, some reflexively or without self-awareness. They will also find themselves caught in differing power relationships in different situations: the dynamic between a protagonist and their romantic partner is probably different than the one they have with their children or their boss or their friends. There are also the ways in which power in one arena doesn’t necessarily equal power in another: a character who is untouchably powerful in the office might be powerless during a traffic stop with an aggressive or abusive police officer.
You can imagine that someone who is the undisputed boss in the boardroom might come to expect their power to be transferrable to other situations: either tragedy or comedy might occur anywhere they learn that it’s not.
You can further imagine that there are times when that same powerful executive might want their power taken from them, to give up decision-making or authority to someone else, either temporarily or permanently.
As we write, our characters reveal themselves to us is in their approaches to wielding their own power or dealing with the power of others. By writing scenes that center asymmetrical power relationships, we discover a character’s sense of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as what they believe are the appropriate uses of their own power. For instance, a parent generally has vast power over their small children, but the ways in that parent uses that power tells us what kind of parent they are. An adult who disciplines a child with excessive physical force, for instance, suggests one kind of character, while another adult who calmly speaks to the misbehaving child suggests another.
In fiction, one way to get your protagonist’s relationships to power on the page is to purposefully write scenes in which they must act and make choices that affect others—which, coincidentally, will also be the kind of scenes that produces more story, because well-rendered actions and choices of this kind will inevitably create consequences that the plot must go on to address.
This month, your exercise is to write the following three scenes, either inside a short story or a novel draft already in progress, or as a triptych that can stand alone as a story or a flash fiction:
A scene in which your protagonist does something to someone else (acts upon them)
A scene in which your protagonist does something for someone else (acts on their behalf)
A scene in which your protagonist has something done to them (is acted upon, and then reacts)
Note that each of these scenes contains a task to be completed (the scene isn't over until the thing being done is done) and also a relationship, which should be changed in some way by the action taken. Note also that the actions in the scenes above do not have to be terribly dramatic on their own, but they certainly could be.
Again, if you can stay in each scene until all of that's happened, not only should you have a couple thousand words of new fiction, but in a longer work you should have some idea of what to write next, because the other characters involved will act and react in response. Hopefully, you'll also learn something about your protagonist and the other characters in their world.
Finally, to bring things back around to my thinking about political power at the top of this exercise, here’s a bonus scene you might try writing:
A scene in which your protagonist does something with something else (acts in collaboration with another character or a group of other characters)
Why this last one? A few years ago, I saw a talk at a conference in Flagstaff, AZ where the speaker talked about how one of the reasons Americans seem so bad at democracy might be that we so rarely get to practice it. (I’m sorry I can’t remember the person’s name: if I figure it out, I’ll amend this exercise.) Most of the spaces we inhabit in our daily lives tend to be run as top-down hierarchies rather than as democracies, no matter what the people in charge of them say: the workplace, the university, our economy, most family structures, most religions, and so on. Imagining how our protagonists might productively work together with other characters might allow us to experience on the page what today feels increasingly difficult to truly encounter in life—but anything we can imagine in story is always also practice for the real.
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
To bring up the last point above, I disagree. I think we have too much choice. We are overwhelmed with choice and options that the majority of us living in the modern world suffer from a cultural and political ADD and have a hard time deciding or going deep into choices.
You have to think about the cliché that the powerful CEO who runs the hedge fund or whatever is a submissive bottom in his sex life who likes to be beaten and treated like a child. Or, the story that President Obama had a closet full of identical suits and somebody to pick out his daily outfits because he didn't want to make the choice. Each choice, each moment of exercising power, requires will, and that will runs out.